Now 74, NPR’s Susan Stamberg talks about the ups and downs of aging
By Laura Hambleton,
When Susan Stamberg started anchoring “All Things Considered” on what was then known as National Public Radio in 1972, she was the only woman broadcasting nightly news on nationwide radio or television. She modeled herself after her male colleagues, “because I thought that’s what you do,” she said. “You speak authoritatively when you anchor the news; you lower your voice.” But her boss told her to just be herself, which she did; after that, her voice became an icon of public radio.
It still is. At 74, Stamberg splits her time between Washington and Los Angeles, where her son lives. “I can work there, and it is warm,” she said, and people in L.A. know her from the radio. “They are hard-core NPR fans,” she said. “They are stuck in their cars. All they have to listen to is us, and they adore us. If I speak, someone says, ‘Oh, I know your voice.’ ”
Stamberg has been inducted into the National Radio Hall of Fame and earned many awards and honorary degrees. After hosting “All Things Considered” for 14 years, Stamberg switched to “Weekend Edition Sunday” and now works as a guest host for “Morning Edition” and “Weekend Edition Saturday” as well as recording pieces on cultural issues for “Morning Edition.”
She recently invited a reporter to her office at NPR — a small, somewhat cluttered place with a vintage radio sitting on a shelf — and talked about growing older and wiser. Here are excerpts from that conversation.
Radio seems like a good medium in which to age.
It is a wonderful medium in every way. You don’t have to comb your hair before you go to work.
How has your voiced aged?
It’s produced through happy, happy years of smoking. Maybe a pack a day. That will roughen up your pipes.
I hear the difference between me and Linda Wertheimer, who is a bit younger than I am, maybe four years, and maybe Nina Totenberg, who is also maybe that much younger than I, but neither of them are smokers. I can hear that in their voices. It is a rounder sound. Mine has little prickers in it. I think it makes for interesting broadcasting, but it’s not a bell-like sound. It was when I was younger in the smoking days, but over time, I think, the pipes age.
[Recently,] we dug into the archives to remember Dave Brubeck [the jazz musician who died in December] with a 1981 interview that I did with him. I brought him to my house, because we had no piano at NPR. And he played. I heard my voice then and they told me the “Weekend Saturday” staff crowded around listening to how I sounded once. My voice was really, really younger.
What else about aging on the radio?
I’m certainly slower. [In December], Ravi Shankar, the great guitarist, died. In 2004, I had gone to India to be with him for a profile. In 2006, I did Shankar’s obituary, and when it ran on the air what I noticed is that my voice is somewhat the same, but in my writing, I’ve lost a certain flexibility and a richness. I hope this doesn’t sound egotistical, but there were two parts that I thought: Susan, Good! [She laughs.] I described his music as being like an Indian sari, rich and subtle and spilling out over something. His music was so beautiful, it broke your heart.
That’s what I heard on the radio in my kitchen this morning. That would be work for me now. That many years ago, it was not. So I notice that because I am groping for words more. I’m having to use Google, which came along just at the moment I needed it most. I am 74 — when your memory starts sort of tattering.
Is there a peak age in radio?
I think there is, for knock-’em-dead, and that’s when you’re young and you have all that energy and invention, and you adore it. That’s one peak. What happens to those talents and abilities over time get burnished. It’s not an effort to know how to structure a story, where to put the quotations, what the pacing of it should be. I know now. That took years.
Some things were a whole lot harder when I was younger, because I knew less. Some things are harder now because I know all that other stuff but I don’t have “earlier” chops, the quick chops.
I get frustrated. Darn, darn, I can’t remember the name. Also, my husband died five years ago, and he was half my memory. We had a long history, over 50 years of marriage. We could always fill in each other’s blanks. He always did it better — my theory is because men don’t go through menopause. [She laughs.] Then, I had a complete memory.
How do you cope with that loss?
I can’t take his voice off my answering machine at home. I won’t. Even my son says, “Mom, it’s time.” But it’s really nice. That’s one way I preserve those things. I was talking to a friend who had lost his wife a year ago. And what I was saying to him is the first year was just a blur to me. I can barely remember it, but what I do know is I traveled a lot. My way of coping was to keep as busy as possible and to never sit down. Luckily, I felt up to that. I was traveling and doing lots of speeches, keeping very busy. I felt if I stopped, I would collapse.
What about dating?
I am stepping into that, but I’m not sure I want to talk about any of that.
I haven’t been on a date in 50 years. [She laughs.] So I don’t know the rules anymore. [She laughs again.]
Men my age are not as used, as younger men would be, to the kind of woman I am, which is very confident, professional. I have been out and around in the world, with an opinion, which I am not afraid to express. Men of my generation — my husband was certainly not like this; we went through women’s liberation together — many men who are a little older than I did not. It is a little off-putting for them in ways that wouldn’t be for younger men.
What about your intellectual life?
I don’t have those digging kinds of discussions, philosophical or whatever, that I did when I was younger. although the other night with a new friend, I had a long talk about capital punishment. It was interesting this was coming out, because I haven’t talked about that in years. We talked about the issue of waging war and the state taking a life in the case of capital punishment. I really felt I was stretching myself to come up with the arguments I wanted to. It was good.
Do the same stories interest you?
I went back to listen to my 1981 interview [with Brubeck], and I loved it. So, yes. That totally interests me. In those days when I was anchoring [“All Things Considered”], Dave Brubeck was like the icing, the carrot that kept me going through the day. I have never been as interested in hard news as I have in the arts. If I knew [author] John Irving was coming in at 2 o’clock, then it was okay, I could do the breaking and congressional news, stuff that was not my first passion.
Have you kept up with new technology in radio?
When we began doing things on the Web and created a Web site showing pictures, people said, “You are going to that gallery or museum and you can put something up on the Web.” And I, in my arrogance, said, “Certainly not. If I can’t get them to see this painting through my description, then I failed. I don’t want them to be driven to go online to see it.” But now I am so grateful, because it saves me so much airtime. I can describe [a painting]; it is a combination of purple and oranges, then I can go on to something else. I don’t spend a lot of time describing. In the middle. I can say, “You can take a look at this at NPR.org.” It is a tremendous help.
What are your hobbies?
I like walking. I like to go to exercise class, Jazzercise. There’s a church basement near me, or I go the National Cathedral School. I do yoga. I cook a little bit. I read. I watch old movies on television. I Netflix. That is quite the salvation. And I see people for dinner. I have a sociable life. I keep busy, but work has been grounding for me. I come in every day. They are fairly short days. I came in at 9.30 to 4 or so.
I think the big key is keeping young people in your life. I have some very good friends who are considerably younger than I am — 10 years, 15 years younger. My son is one of them. He is a good friend to me, as well as my child. He’s way across the country, which is part of why I go out there in the winter. That keeps me thinking.
He comes to me with his family for Thanksgiving. We were standing in the kitchen and he said to me, “What’s life like now at your age?” I thought, “Oh, God, Josh, that is a wonderful question. Thank you for asking me that.”
I’m keeping busy. I’m curious. I am keeping my mind going.
What techniques do you use now you didn’t use before to remember things?
I keep these [pointing at a paper calendar]. Everybody keeps their calendars on phones, but not me. [She laughs.] I have Post-its, which I move forward. Here’s one on payday, and I move it two weeks forward. I put prompts and reminders all over the place. I always kept a little engagement book, but all I needed was to write was one word. I would remember. I wouldn’t have to write down as much as I do now.
Here’s something happening on Monday, and I have no idea what it is. Eleven o’clock, radio, Diane calling me. I don’t know what that is.
No, no, no. That is the Diane I know, but this one, I was writing it fast. But I figure 11 o’clock will come and I will know what that is about.
Hambleton is a freelance writer.